tl;dr Unhappiness is the absolute worst thing. Ultimately it is caused by a lack of awareness and vigilance over our subjectivity, i.e. ignorance around our biological, psychological, and societal needs and restraints. Acquiring knowledge about our subjective makeup and consecrating it through action is how we can ward off unhappiness, most of which is senseless and inadvertently caused by us. Digital mental health tools to discover self-knowledge and record our insights and actions is my way of combating our unhappiness. And while happiness is not the end-goal, redemption from our naturally unhappy state of affairs is, so that we do not suffer senselessly like an animal and can make of our lives what we wish and must. A rich life void of major regrets and full of purpose and meaning is the goal.
“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.” - Louis-Ferdinand Celine
Unhappiness is the enemy. You can’t point to where it hurts, its cause may be frozen in the past, and the ways we hide from it consume and come to define us. We trade our life potential for vanity, settle for less than we are, cut down our family, ruin our lives with a single foolish mistake, and push away the person who feels like home. Someone drags their feet to work, another numbs it all with liquor, a third snoozes the alarm clock, the fourth circles his neighborhood after work, and the fifth spits on the weakness of the first four. Each word here will illustrate just how easily our unawareness can devastate our life.
Schopenhauer mentions a feeling whose “stamp can be read in the permanent lines on his face”: that’s unhappiness. Celine describes a “hideous grimace that takes twenty, thirty years or more to climb form your belly to your face”: unhappiness. Unhappiness is powerful solely because it could have been different. Yet because of who we were and have continued to be, it is not. Unhappiness is our fault. And because of the therapeutic life-changing leverage it provides, it is the surest way to deal with the invisible monster each of us carry around.
Vision for Mental Health
“To hang on to life madly and blindly, with no higher aim than to hang on to it; not to know that or why one is being so heavily punished but, with the stupidity of a fearful desire, to thirst after precisely this punishment as though after happiness – that is what it means to be an animal” - Friedrich Nietzsche.
Who among us is really that far beyond the misery of this “humanimal” Nietzsche describes? After much thought, I think that our unhappiness is ultimately driven by a lack of awareness and vigilance over our needs, motivations, actions, and options. We are literally blind to our subjectivity and estranged from our inner life or even basic emotion. We can continue to ignore our situation, but eventually the prolonged pain of frustrated needs coupled with the maladaptive (sometimes destructive) behaviors we adopt will breed more unhappiness than we can cope with. And its not so much that we’ll finally be happy when we deal with our grisly state of affairs, but more so that we won’t be unhappy. To come back to Nietzsche:
Man, the bravest animal… does not negate suffering in itself, he want it, he even seeks it out, provided one shows him a meaning for it… the meaningless of suffering, not the suffering itself, was the curse that thus far lay stretched out over humanity" - Friedrich Nietzsche
When all is said and done, I believe that self-knowledge consecrated through action is a surefire way to redeem ourselves from our unhappy human nature, minimize regret, and achieve good mental health. So that’s my big idea on why we are unhappy and what we can do about it. But this is all incredibly general. How exactly do we get from point A to point B?
Digital mental health
One way to bridge the gap is through digital mental health tools. By this I mean innovative digital tools which should be useful in attaining this valuable kind of self-knowledge. Knowledge that helps us look backward at areas of conflict, trauma, or defense mechanisms which continue to drag us back. Knowledge to help us look forward into the very things which can pull us into a space flowing with purpose, meaning, and redemption. Knowledge to help us map the spaces integral to who we were, are, and hope to become. So why such emphasis on self-knowledge? Consider this quote transcribed from here:
“The more that we know ourselves, the better lives we can live. And when we get in to trouble, very often, its the expression of parts of ourselves that we don’t know very well… There are unconscious forces within us…we should attempt to understand ourselves, to get our unconscious illuminated… If we’re not understanding ourselves well then a lot of our baser animal instincts can be in play a lot, leading to a lot of unhappy sexual expression and pursuits. And once we can understand that tends to take the fuel out of the neurotic systems and gradually they dissipate.” - Irvin Yalom
If we’re able to understand our own subjectivity and psychological peculiarities, and if we can actualize these insights through action then we stand a chance of living a rich life void of major regrets and full of purpose and meaning. That is my end goal. Technology like this could take many different shapes. And although the FDA has approved only handfuls of companies with digital health solutions, only a few of those are targeting mental health, and even fewer are doing work related to what I ultimately envision.
Affectiva has built a company around detecting emotion. Mindstrong uses digital biomarkers to monitor mental health. Empatica is FDA approved to detect seizures with the goal of detecting stress and other mental conditions. All of these companies are only tiptoeing into the vision I’ve drawn out here. Much more needs to be done.
Technology like this not only generates insight, it records insight. This is important because for many of us both mentally ill and not, life can be numbingly excruciating. And when:
“You can’t remember your lives. You can’t change your lives, and that is the terrible and secret fate of all life. You’re trapped by that nightmare you keep waking up into.” - Rust Cohle
Life is hard, and we should not make it harder if we can help it. My dream is to make life a more worth living by creating digital mental health tools which illuminate and improve the inner life. And while I’m not completely certain what that looks like just yet, I’m optimistic and excited to find out. This is what it’s all about for me. This is what I mean by the phrase at the bottom of every page. And if I can leave you with one thing, it is this: a question. The only one that matters.
“You who were given a life, what did you make of it?” - Forrest Gander